With the new season of ITV’s Downton Abbey beginning any day now, thoughts here at allonymbooks recently turned to the popularity of all things Edwardian, not least because both Evie Woolmore‘s novel Equilibrium and our soon-to-be-published Young Adult saga The Strattons by Flora Chase are set in that era. With the BBC’s current stunning adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End continuing the trend, albeit from a darker, more intense perspective, we asked Evie and Flora to discuss why they chose the period to set their books, and what they think makes it so interesting to contemporary audiences.
Evie Woolmore (EW): With all the popularity of fantasy in YA sagas, why did you choose such a ‘down-to-earth’ Edwardian setting for The Strattons?
Flora Chase (FC): In one of my other professional lives, I work a lot with the 18-25 age group, and something I hear a great deal is ‘this is the most important decision/day/achievement of my life’. Looking on from a somewhat ‘older’ perspective, I have a better understanding of how life goes on to unfurl a whole series of decisions, days and achievements, so one of the things I really wanted to explore in these YA novels is how young people experience making important decisions, or responding to situations that are suddenly thrown at them. The big country houses of the Edwardian aristocracy provide a great backdrop for showing how young people of different classes responded to responsibility, choice, and independence, which are defining themes of a lot of the great YA novels. Independence is a key theme in Equilibrium, isn’t it?
EW: Particularly for women, yes. The four women at the centre of the novel are each seeking independence from their situations – financial, intellectual, emotional, physical, social – and the Edwardian era is such a fruitful one for exploring how women began to define themselves as more than just wives and mothers. It’s not merely a question ofseeking the vote, but the larger symbolism of their voice being heard: there are lots of places in the novel where the idea of speaking freely is challenged, not only by the male characters but by more traditional older women characters too, and in a sense Epiphany, the spiritualist medium, is a metaphor for all the women of that era, channeling voices that would not normally be heard.
FC: Why do you think the Edwardian era has become popular on television recently?
Evie Woolmore (EW): I think there’s a glamour aspect, isn’t there, that perception that it was a period of luxury and indulgence – at least for a small portion of the population. In his history, The Edwardians, Roy Hattersley elegantly describes the era as “a long and leisurely afternoon”, which is a lovely image, though he goes on to debunk that as a myth, showing that the period is not an interlude between Queen Victoria and the First World War, but more accurately a watershed when the modern British nation came into being. But don’t we often cast a golden light over historical periods, especially rather glamorous ones?
Flora Chase (FC): I think to some extent that’s exactly what Downton Abbey has tried to do, especially in the first series – which is also what seems to have irked Benedict Cumberbatch in a recent promotional interview for Parade’s End. It’s tempting to think that life was somehow simpler in earlier times, that people had less to worry and think about than we do today. But the issues that concern us now – money, fast moving technological changes, the ever-shrinking world, blurred boundaries between private and public behaviour – are largely similar to what concerned the Edwardians of all classes. One of the challenges in setting The Strattons books in that era was to show those issues through a teenage eye, to demonstrate the tension they caused without labouring the historical facts. In fact, I deliberately chose the era as a backdrop to writing about how young people find their identities in the adult world, because it was a time of great imagination and possibility, and increasing individual freedom, particularly for young women.
EW: There’s a lot in that idea of freedom, isn’t there? It’s a strong theme in Equilibrium, freedom from one’s past mistakes, freedom within marriage, freedom from the social restrictions on women. All four main female characters in the book are searching for ways to push the limits of their existence. I often think of the Edwardians as being like a woman who has gladly shed her corset, only to find that her dress is still tightly fitted. It’s about balancing the tempting possibilities of freedom against the restrictions of how one ought to behave – and I think that’s a key debate we live constantly now, from Prince Harry and the nude photographs to phone hacking to freedom of speech.
FC: So maybe we look fondly on the Edwardians because we like to think of them – rightly or wrongly – as the last generation who managed to live productively within that tension between individual freedoms and collective restraint. And, like your metaphorical woman whose bodice might be a bit low cut, there is always the potential for the tension to spill over.
EW: That’s productive for us as novelists, of course, but as a society perhaps we look back because we are casting around for rules of some sort, codes of behaviour, patterns of mutual respect to provide reference points for ‘how things ought to be’, to bring order to that blurring of public/private boundaries.
FC: And maybe people are intrigued by that notion of ‘not in front of the servants’ – that there is some portion of our lives that just shouldn’t be acted out in a public space. My unruly character Blanche, in The Strattons, definitely has trouble with that!
EW: I looked at that idea in Equilibrium too. The spirits who speak through Epiphany bring forward the sort of private details that validate their existence as ‘real’. Alhough they are things which the living relatives might have preferred were kept private, she is constantly seeking a balance between validation and voyeurism, between proving what she does is genuine and exposing her sitters beyond their comfort. There’s a titillation value in that breaching of privacy which the Edwardians enjoyed as well as endured, and I wonder whether people now have some nostalgia for that idea that there are some things you just wouldn’t say or print, even if you whispered them discreetly.
FC: Are we mourning the death of discretion?
EW: You mean it’s dead?! Actually, I think perhaps we are mourning the death of propriety, of proper conduct, of knowing how to behave. And perhaps that is what people are most nostalgic for when they immerse themselves in the retellings of the Edwardian era.